23 October 2018

Complications of Fedotov’s threefold Kievan typology

My mind has been going back to Fedotov recently with the crisis in the Church, with its focal point in old Kiev. The spiritual divides, if such we may call them, are not along nation-state lines: the fault-lines run through each of the East Slavic nations today. The religious-gæographical typology of Orthodox historian Gyorgi Fedotov regarding the history and tendencies of Kievan Rus’ has started making more and more sense to me, from an anecdotal perspective. The radical, caritative Kievan Rus’ spirituality, coherent at first, had already begun to disintegrate and variegate itself by the 1200’s, along with the political disintegration of the Rus’ polity itself. The three centrifugal ‘regional centres’ of Kievan Rus’ spirituality have been Vladimir (-Suzdal, with Rostov and Moscow), Novgorod (with Pskov and later Saint Petersburg), and Galich. The spirituality of Vladimir is marked by a certain studied disavowal of temporal affairs in the pursuit of spiritual ones, which at its best can produce breathtaking feats of meekness and holy foolishness, and which at its worst produces a kind of cynical submission to temporal authority. Moscow is still not immune from these sins, as one can readily see.

The spirituality of Galich is marked by a ‘closeness’ to the West, a pull in the direction of Rome prompted by propinquity to the Poles – which at its best can take on a needed seriousness in social doctrine; but which at its worst can produce an overbearing hubris, triumphalism and pride, whether nationalistic or personal. (For example. Claiming, as does a certain baizuo Uniate blogger, that you can understand and ‘read’ Orthodox politics better than do actual Third World prelates of the actual Orthodox Church with actual experience of actual Third World political conditions – and then claiming that your spirituality is the only Non-Aligned one even as you align with the Trumpist religious policy of the biggest imperialist power bloc – that takes a pathological level of arrogance and spite.)

Don’t get me wrong, though: there are positive sides to the ‘Galician’ spiritual tendency. The uprising of the Cossacks under Bogdan Khmelnitsky was a grave tragedy as far as my Jewish forebears are (still) concerned, but it did win the peasantry a greater degree of consideration – and in the Treaty of Pereyaslavl, Khmelnitsky demonstrated that he did have a caritative side as well as a vengeful one.

The third centre of Kievan Rus’ spirituality, in Fedotov’s view, is Novgorod, which he feels was better able to preserve the radical-caritative and kenotic aspects of Kievan spirituality against the feudalistic pride of Galich and the political calculation and cynicism of Vladimir – at least for a time. Now, typical of Russian liberals of a certain stripe, there has always been a fascination with the Old Novgorod Republic as a kind of primitive democracy. This is a fascination Fedotov himself, a liberal-socialist in exile, does not escape. It is also a fascination that comes under spirited attack from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who sees Novgorod instead as a primitive oligarchy, and sees in the romanticisation of Novgorodian democracy a kind of bourgeois pretentiousness. Instead, Solzhenitsyn pointed to the nearby Pomory, a homesteading and seafaring folk who originally hailed from Novgorod but who developed a very different kind of communal small-holder democracy.

Be that as it may: the older analysis – stereotype, really – of autocratic conservative Muscovy versus liberal westward-facing Novgorod (and Saint Petersburg) no longer really holds true. Russian spirituality such as it is has undergone a bit of a rôle-reversal, even though the internal dynamics have remained the same. Novgorod, as well as the nearby cities of Pskov and Saint Petersburg so beloved of Russian democrats and westernisers of a bygone age, have intriguingly become bastions of Slavophil-flavoured conservatism, while now it is urban Moscow that has become a hub for liberal and zapadnik criticism of the current government that sits at its centre. Novgorod, Pskov and Saint Petersburg now all emphasise their age, their culture, their ties to the Russian past; instead it is the bourgeoisie of Moscow that seeks a more Europeanised future.

At the same time, the old spiritual dynamics seem to be working themselves out under the surface, even if the outward and superficial politics of each cluster of cities has changed. I would argue that Novgorod and Pskov are no less democratically-minded now, but that the old democratic faith seems to have tied itself to the traditions upheld by ‘the people’. It is almost as though the old quasi-populist pochvennichestvo has sprung to life again there. Likewise Moscow’s traditional cynicism – though none of the old kenoticism or yurodstvo – can be seen surfacing in the reticent attitudes toward the government and the not-so-soft-spoken disdain for ‘the people’ that once accompanied the old autocratic officialdom. That having been said, there is a place for an authentic Russian liberalism of the Moscow ‘type’. Paul Grenier likes to point out that the peculiarly-Moscow liberalism of, say, an Aleksandr Herzen, is of a caritative type and is at least able to understand and appreciate the Slavophil perspective even as it rejects certain key aspects. It is also no more amenable than Slavophilia is, to the deracinated and alienating capitalist ordo.

I don’t really have a good explanation for why this rôle-reversal has happened; from where I sit on another continent I can only observe the effects, rather than attempt to probe the inner dynamics. Personally, I’m not even sure a ‘synthesis’ of these forms of spirituality is even desirable, and unity would only be possible between them in a free and brotherly sense rather than a straightforwardly-administrative one. The fact that the disintegration of Kievan Rus’ was accompanied by a greater variegation of religious perspectives. The fall of Kievan Rus’ into infighting and conquest by the Golden Horde was lamentable, but the variegation of the lives of her holy men – this was and is not to be lamented.

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